Chris Kennedy is the William H. Colvin Professor of Linguistics at the University of Chicago. He received his PhD in 1997 from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and taught at Northwestern University for eight years before moving to the University of Chicago in 2005. His research addresses topics in semantics and pragmatics, the syntax-semantics interface, and philosophy of language. 

The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. Click here to see previous Member Spotlights.

Q: When did you first join the LSA?

I joined the LSA during my first year of graduate school in 1991, taking advantage of the great student discount.  

Q: How have you been involved with the LSA since you joined?

In addition to attending and reviewing abstracts for many Annual Meetings, I have taught at two Institutes, I have served on the Program Committee and I am currently an Associate Editor for Language.  

Q: What are you currently researching?

I always seem to have more pots on the stove than I know what to do with, but two projects that I’m really exited about right now explore different aspects of uncertainty about meaning: how it emerges, how it is negotiated in communication, and also how it can be exploited to provide new ways of thinking about old problems in semantic and pragmatic theory. One of these projects, which I’ve been developing in collaboration with my Chicago Linguistics colleague Ming Xiang and our postdocs and students Christina Kim, Tim Leffel and Helena Aparicio, examines the phenomenon of "tolerance," which concerns the ways in which language as a categorical symbolic system is linked to a gradient world. We have been looking in particular at the interpretation and processing of different classes of gradable predicates, and (we think) we have found evidence for two kinds of "tolerance system:" one that arises from the meanings of expressions and one that arises from the way that expressions are used, which interact differently with context and prior experience. 

The second project, which I am carrying out with my Chicago Philosophy colleague Malte Willer, explores the tension between characterizing language as a system for describing the world vs. a system for communicating subjective perspective, and the challenges that this tension creates for semantic theory.  Basing our proposals on the analysis of a subtle but systematic and cross-linguistically robust pattern of complement selection by a certain class of “subjective” attitude verbs, we attempt to resolve this tension by characterizing subjectivity as a fundamentally pragmatic phenomenon, which emerges from language users’ sophisticated awareness of the arbitrariness of the decisions they make in resolving semantic uncertainty for the purpose of communication.

Q: What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study?

I don’t work much in syntax anymore, but two of my favorite pieces of literature are in this area.  I will always love Joan Bresnan’s 1973 article “Syntax of the Comparative Clause Construction in English,” partly because it helped me find a dissertation topic (which, like many graduate students, was something that I was struggling with), but mainly because it is such a beautiful combination of empirical richness, analytical rigor, and clarity of argumentation.  And I have a special place in my heart for Syntactic Structures, since it was a mostly accidental encounter with the Austin Public Library’s copy of this book in the summer of 1990 that made me realize that I wanted to give up a career as a rock musician and instead go to graduate school in linguistics.

Q: How has the field of linguistics changed since you first started your work?

I think there is a greater engagement with work in neighboring fields, in a way that hasn’t replaced traditional methdolologies, analytical techniques or theoretical frameworks in linguistics, but has instead enhanced and invigorated them. I find myself most excited by a talk or paper when it shows me how an idea from some other domain of inquiry can be brought to bear on a linguistic problem in a way that leads to a deeper understanding of the phenomenon, gives us a new analytical or methodological tool, or enhances linguistic theory.

Q: What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in linguistics?

Embrace your ignorance.

Q: What, in your opinion, is the most important service the LSA provides to its members? To the field?

The most important service the LSA provides to both its members and to the field is the collection, curation and dissemination of (what is hopefully among) the best contemporary work in the field, in a way that promotes (or at least allows) interaction across subfields and the opportunity to encounter work from outside one’s area(s) of specialization, through the Annual Meetings, the Institutes and Language and the online journals/conference proceedings that are now supported by the LSA.